Thursday , November 16, 2017 - 5:15 AM17 comments
Law enforcement reporting of hate crimes is fraught with contradictions and caveats, which makes Ogden’s 2016 state-leading total of eight such offenses a subject for comparative debate.
No Utah city was close to Ogden’s caseload. Salt Lake City had one reported hate crime last year, according to the FBI’s annual report, released Monday. West Valley City documented four and Bountiful three. In Weber County, North Ogden logged two, and South Ogden and Pleasant View each reported one.
For the purposes of collecting statistics, the FBI has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity,” according to the agency’s website.
But hate crime reporting can be inconsistent for a variety of reasons, some tied to the training of police officers about how to determine whether a crime is motivated by bias. Such factors as human error in police coding crimes properly also can play a role.
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The FBI, which collects the data by congressional mandate, cautions that ranking or rating law enforcement agencies or their communities based solely on the data “has serious implications.” Inferences of police effectiveness are flawed, the FBI report said, because they do not take into account unique community demographic characteristics or issues such as police resources or budgets.
“It’s a terrible process,” said Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, who will try again in 2018 to convince fellow legislators to pass a bill toughening penalties for hate crimes and adding protections for those victimized in crimes motivated by bias over sexual orientation or gender identity.
Thatcher said he once talked to a sheriff about the investigation into a swastika being spray-painted over a campaign sign of the sheriff’s election opponent. The sheriff said he didn’t think it was a hate crime, but because the victim was his opponent, he was going to treat it as one.
“He didn’t want anyone to feel he didn’t take it as seriously as he could,” Thatcher said. “That shows up in the crime stats. Some random jackass sprays a swastika and now it’s a hate crime.”
Such better-safe-than-sorry reporting is one problem with the data, Thatcher said, and “by contrast, other agencies don’t report any.”
Because state law does not require police to document hate crimes anyway, “why track it if there’s no way to enforce it,” Thatcher said.
Only 26 of 130 participating Utah law enforcement agencies reported any hate crimes in 2016, the FBI report said, but that was 10 more agencies than the previous year. Overall crimes reported were up — 66 compared with 51.
Most hate crimes reported in 2016 related to race, ethnicity or ancestry, 47; followed by sexual orientation, 9; religion, 8; and disability, 2.
Ogden’s cases were attributed to race, 3; sexual orientation, 4; and disability, 1.
The Weber County Sheriff’s Office reported no hate crimes in 2015 or 2016. Spokesman Lt. Nathan Hutchinson said the possibility that hate may be a motive in a given incident “doesn’t change anything for us. It’s not that we are overlooking them or not looking for them. We just follow the evidence.”
If investigators determine a hate crime has occurred, the case is screened with prosecutors, just as in other criminal cases, and the appropriate codes are entered into the reports, he said.
A perpetrator’s intent also must be taken into account by officers when determining whether an incident constitutes a hate crime, a group of West Virginia researchers noted in a 2011 study of incorrectly reported hate crimes.
“Identifying bias-motivated crimes from unbiased crimes remains a difficult practice for law enforcement officials and even experts in the field,” the research report said.
Organizational factors and officers’ personal beliefs “contribute to officers’ definition of the situation and whether a crime contained hate biases,” the report said.
Hate crimes were undercounted by two-thirds, the researchers said, in their study of 28,000 cases.
You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SEmarkshenefelt.
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